Follieri’s Follies

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jul 2, 2008 | Categories: Politics, Scandals

Raffaello Follieri, 29, chairman and chief executive of The Follieri Group, was charged last week in an 18-page complaint with persuading investors he had a special relationship with the Vatican and was able to purchase church properties at below-market prices. raf.jpg

For two years beginning in June 2005, the complaint alleges, Follieri “operated a fraudulent real estate investment scheme” by which he gained access to investors’ money by falsely representing his connections with high Vatican officials, including the pope.

Follieri used the money to fund a lavish lifestyle, including a luxury apartment in Manhattan, expensive restaurants, clothes, dog walking services, and “flights on privately chartered planes to various locations around the world” for himself and his live-in girlfriend, actress Anne Hathaway.

According to the criminal complaint, Follieri went to great lengths to promote the idea that he was a trusted Vatican associate, traveling with two monseigneurs and keeping a cardinal’s  ceremonial garb  in his U.S. office in case one of them needed to change into something more impressive.

Writer Joe Feuerherd first reported on the activities of The Follieri Group in a cover story  for NCR on March 3, 2006. The entire article can be found here.

The Follieri Group saw a golden opportunity to acquire valuable  real estate from  dozens of dioceses and religious communities that needed to shed assets because of shifting demographics or sex abuse awards.

The Wall Street Journal covered the breakup between Follieri and his U.S. investors, including Los Angeles billionaire  Ronald Burckle,  a friend of  former president Bill Clinton and owner of the closely held Yucaipa Cos. The scheme unraveled with Burckle asked for an audit.

The Follieri Group had a simple business plan: exploit their connection to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, to gain access to church officials in the U.S. They told investors their key relationships in the Vatican  would give them substantial advantages in obtaining properties owned by the Catholic Church in the United States. sodano.jpg

“Andrea Sodano, the cardinal’s nephew, is a Follieri Group vice president, a fact widely  known in U.S. church real estate circles,” Feuerherd wrote.

The federal prosecutors claim Andrea Sodano played a crucial role in Follieri’s scheme by accepting payment to arrange for him to meet with bishops, cardinals and other clergymen.

But our U.S. clergy had sharper noses then some sharp-toothed investors. The Follieri Group was stopped at the door. They only obtained a handful of properties, and never developed them as promised. The audiences with U.S. prelates  seem to have petered out.

The company made an awkward attempt at schmoozing at a National Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting, when their offer of placing fruit baskets in the hotel rooms of the 350 bishops was rebuffed. The company ended up handing out the baskets near the conference registration desk.

“This group has tried persistently to be part of the conference and was not permitted,” said Sister Mary Walsh, a spokesperson. “They’re not a church organization.”

Raffaello Follieri’s last hurrah was  a 2008  Easter  announcement of the advent of  an internet-based newspaper, Catholic Decisions. This publication was going to be “an independent voice for diverse Catholic communities,” and focus on “religious, political and social justice issues as they related to the Catholic Church.” He also promised, as a Catholic publication, “we will be found to fidelity to the Catholic message as it comes to us through the Church.”

The Federal complaint mentioned a “pitch book to start up a  new media company called Follieri Media.” The pitch book had been distributed to several potential investors. The  presentation claimed that Follieri Media had a “unique relationship with the Catholic Church,” and it planned to acquire such assets as National Catholic Reporter, Legionnairies Radio and EWTN. NCR publisher Sr. Rita Larivee, said, “We never heard anything from the Follieri Group.”  

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